Calvin Remsberg, who's been playing top feline for nearly half a year in "Cats" at the National Theatre, left his costume behind last week when he talked for several hours to about 100 students at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville.
Despite doffing his makeup and fur, he mesmerized his audience with tales of theater life, dining with the stars, and what it's like to have little children pull your tail while you're giving their parents your autograph. Remsberg plays the role of Old Deuteronomy in the long-running hit musical.
In a humorous turnabout, Remsberg, in bright green polo shirt, yellow tie, gray sweater and jeans, and black leather basketball referee shoes, sat on the auditorium floor facing the students, one of whom (it was Halloween) wore a homemade version of a "Cats" costume.
The students, most of them in Loudoun Valley's Superior Learning Program, asked Remsberg blunt questions and delighted in his equally direct answers.
"What do you hate most about singing on stage?"
"What's the best part of being a celebrity?"
The show's Old Deuteronomy ("There's only one meow in the whole show and I do it") agreed to talk to the students last week at the request of his friend, Cliff Thomson, the school's chorus director. Classmates at Fort Hunt High School near Alexandria, Remsberg and Thomson more recently performed together with the Washington Opera, which Remsberg left several years ago when he went to New York for a part in "Sweeney Todd."
On Monday evening, Remsberg will be in Purcellville for a benefit concert with the school chorus. The proceeds will help buy equipment for the chorus and musical theater productions.
He would not say whether he will sing a tune from "Cats." "I will be doing several numbers alone, and then with the chorus," Remsberg said. Then he smiled. "We're going to surprise everybody and do something together at the end."
"He does have something special in mind," said Thomson, who is sworn to secrecy.
Taking time to visit area schools while on the road with a show is nothing new for Remsberg, who not long ago taught music and theater at the Madeira and Potomac schools. He'll visit other schools when the show moves later this month to Philadelphia.
"I love working with the students," Remsberg said. Monday's benefit concert falls on the one free day of his eight-performance week.
Remsberg told the students last week about his journey from majoring in English at the College of William & Mary to a post-graduation job at a Springfield shopping mall, where he tried unsuccessfully to sell pianos and organs, to teaching, to landing a part in "Sweeney Todd," then spending "the hardest time of my life" -- 11 unemployed months in New York, to finally becoming top cat at the National Theatre.
He impressed on the students the wisdom of taking every opportunity to work at their future careers. Recalling the days when he was, among other things, teaching, directing local theater productions and singing with the Washington Opera, Remsberg said he was "running six ways to China, but I was really immersed in what I wanted to do."
His "very biggest advice," he told the students, was "once you figure out what you want to do . . . make yourself find the opportunities to do it, whenever there are opportunities, and if there aren't, make your own. So go off and make your summer mean something. Don't just sit around . . . . I think you can make your own careers happen like I have."
Confidence, or at least a confident demeanor, will be essential, he said when asked if he had always had faith in himself.
"There are too many people in New York that do have confidence and do know what they can do. They'll walk right over you." There is a "psychological trick you can play. Make yourself do it . . . . If you're nervous, say, 'OK, I'm going to act like I'm not nervous.' "
Remsberg won the students' attention most with his advice, although he elicited giggles and exclamations when he mentioned dining with movie and opera stars and meeting celebrities at at parties.
After the two-hour talk, senior Lianne Larson said, "Acting in school plays, as I do now, it seems unrealistic I could make it to Broadway. Yet listening to him today, it seems like a goal that can be reached."
Senior Beth Moison had already reached one of her goals. She had Remsberg's autograph, scrawled on a piece of lined school notebook paper.
"I'm going to put it on my mirror," she said.